1817:   The Year in Review

The year 1817 saw a multitude of changes in the world of our Regency ancestors. Sadly, two of the most notable women of the era passed away. That same year saw the appearance of a strange woman who took in a great many people before the truth came out. However, there were several more positive events which also occurred during this year, some of which have changed how we live our lives down to the twenty-first century.

A synopsis of the year 1817 . . .

The most notable British women lost in 1817 were, of course, Jane Austen, in July, and Princess Charlotte, in November. Though she had published four popular novels during her lifetime, Jane Austen had been relatively unknown, since her books were published as by "a Lady." The public only became aware of the real name of this lady author in an obituary written by her brother, Henry, and published on 22 July 1817, in the Hampshire Courier. Princess Charlotte, on the other hand, had lived in the public eye all of her life. She was the darling of the public, for whom she was their best hope for the future of the monarchy. Most people were devastated at her death and that of her stillborn son, particularly since there were, at that time, no other heirs to the throne. What most did not know was that the loss of Princess Charlotte and her baby boy triggered what amounted to a baby race among her royal uncles. Those who were not married gave up their long-time mistresses and married various European princesses in an effort to produce the next legitimate heir to the throne of Britain.

There was another princess who was the talk of many people during the spring of 1817. However, within a few weeks, this princess was shown to be a fraud, and once she was unmasked, she fled to America. Princess Caraboo was actually a poor young woman, Mary Baker, by name, who invented a new persona for herself, and a new world for that persona, since she found her real life so painful it was nearly unbearable. That June, after she was exposed, Mary Baker, in the company of three religious ladies, sailed for America. In August of 1817, a journalist who had researched the true origins of Mary Baker, published an account of her masquerade as Princess Caraboo. That book sold very well, though it was long out of print by the time Mary Baker returned to Britain in 1824. She initially went to London, where she tried to support herself on the Princess Caraboo story, but with only minimal success. Eventually, she married, had a child and settled in Bristol, where she quietly lived out the rest of her life.

The Prince Regent certainly began the year 1817 on a lavish note. In mid-January, he hosted a extravagant banquet at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, for Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia. Grand Duke Nicholas, the younger brother of Tsar Alexander, was on a State visit of Britain. Since the Regent had been hissed and booed in the streets of London a few weeks earlier, he had retreated to Brighton. Therefore, he had invited the Grand Duke and his entourage to visit him there. This magnificent banquet was designed, organized and prepared by the Regent’s recently hired French chef, Antonin Carême. It was a great success and it may explain why Carême went to work for the Tsar of Russia after he left England and the Regent’s employ.

January of 1817 saw the first edition of The Scotsman, a radical political newspaper published weekly in Edinburgh. It began to be published daily in 1855 and the newspaper is still published to this day. Another important periodical was also first published in April of 1817. This monthly Tory paper was originally published as the Edinburgh Monthly Magazine. However, the early issues were not very successful, so the publisher, William Blackwood, fired his editors in October. He decided he could do a better job himself and began publishing his periodical as Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. This version of the magazine did much better and Blackwood later shortened its name to Blackwood’s Magazine. The magazine remained in the Blackwood family and they continued to publish it until 1980.

Some notable works of poetry were published in 1817 including Lord Byron’s Gothic drama poem, Manfred, which was laced with supernatural aspects. Byron’s friends also published poems in 1817. Thomas Moore published his poem of oriental romance, Lalla Rookh, while Percy Bysshe Shelley published the poem a Hymn to Intelectual Beauty, as well as a travelogue, History of a Six Weeks’ Tour [believed to be primarily the work of Mary Shelley]. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, another romantic poet, published his Biographia Literaria, in two volumes, in 1817. This is a complex but loosely structured work, highly criticized by many at the time as the result of Coleridge’s opiate-driven mental instability, though he considered it merely "meditative." It certainly generated much discussion in literary circles.

Some notable novels were also published in Britain in 1817. Thomas Love Peacock published his second novel, Melincourt, a satire on humanity and the sad state of British politics. In the book, an orangutan is put forward as a candidate for election to Parliament. At the other end of the spectrum was a sweeping historical novel of adventure set during the Jacobite Rising of 1715. Entitled Rob Roy, the book was published as part of the Waverly novel series. Though published anonymously, like all the other Waverly novels, it was written by Walter Scott, in the spring and summer of 1817, and was published on the last day of December of that same year. However, it must be noted that the copyright date for Rob Roy is usually given as 1818.

At her passing, Jane Austen left behind two completed manuscripts, which her family arranged to have published in December, under her real name. These novels were Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Northanger Abbey is believed to be the first novel which Austen completed, and is written as a satire on the many over-the-top Gothic novels which were popular in the late eighteenth century. Austen actually sold this novel, under the title Susan (the name of her heroine), to a London book-seller in 1803, for £10. However, though the buyers decided not to publish it, they refused to return the rights to the author. Then, in the spring of 1816, Austen’s brother, Henry, was able to buy the rights to Susan for the same price the book-seller had originally paid his sister. Of course, at that time they did not know the author of the book they sold to Henry was "the Lady" who had also written Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma. Probably in late 1816, Austen reworked her original story, changing the heroine’s name to Catherine, which also became her new title for the book. Despite her illness, Austen had completed another novel by March of 1817, which she had titled Persuasion. Prior to publication, Catherine was retitled Northanger Abbey, probably to capitalize on the popularity of Mansfield Park, while the other novel’s title remained Persuasion. The two novels were published together in a four-volume set, late in December, along with a lengthy "Biographical Notice" written about Jane by her brother, Henry. Though not inexpensive, this set sold very well. Like Rob Roy, though these books were printed and released in December of 1817, the copyright for both of them is usually given as 1818.

There were also some notable events in the British art world in 1817. In January, the Elgin Marbles went on display at the British Museum for the first time as the property of the nation. Parliament has purchased the marble sculptures, which once graced the frieze of the Parthenon, from Lord Elgin in July of 1816. After the purchase, the British Museum had a large temporary gallery built on their grounds in Bloomsbury in order to display their famous new acquisition. It had been thrown up quickly and was essentially an iron frame covered with wood. Though it was not a sophisticated or elegant space, that was of little concern to the public. They thronged to the museum in the thousand to see the famous collection of ancient sculptures which were now the property of Britain. The collection was praised by all of the leading artists, writers and intellectuals of the time as one of the great monuments of world art and their acquisition was considered a triumph for Great Britain.

A much less temporary gallery was constructed in South London in 1817. That was the Dulwich Picture Gallery which had been designed by the noted architect, Sir John Soane, and opened in 1817. This building has the distinction of being both the oldest and the first purpose-built art gallery in Britain. Knowing the building was intended for the display artwork, Soane designed it with very few windows, but many skylights. The light coming in from above would illuminate the paintings with indirect rather than the more damaging direct light. This was a radical departure from the traditional norms of building design during this period, but it would be imitated by many architects who designed art galleries and other exhibit spaces in the centuries that followed. Soane also eschewed another common practice among most Regency architects. He designed a facade of uninterrupted plain raw brick which was not covered with the stucco that most architects slathered on their building facades during this era. The Dulwich Picture Gallery still stands today and it is still used for the purpose for which it was originally designed and built, housing some of the finest artwork in the world.

In June of 1817, another architectural gem and a remarkable feat of engineering, the Waterloo Bridge, was dedicated in London. Called the most beautiful bridge in Europe by Antonio Canova, the Waterloo Bridge added a new route over the Thames in the heart of London for the first time in centuries. It was dedicated with great pomp and circumstance on 18 June 1817, the second anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, from which the bridge took its name. Even the Duke of Wellington, who was then commanding the occupation forces in France, returned to London for the dedication ceremony. It was an all-day party in which masses of people from all classes took part. For more than a century, the bridge was considered one of the most significant monuments in London and many tourists made it a point to both see and cross over it.

The realms of sport and entertainment also saw some interesting innovations in 1817. In June of that year, in Germany, Karl von Drais took the first ride on the Laufmaschine, his newest invention. Two years later, this proto-bicycle became all the rage in Britain, where is was most often known as the hobby-horse. In July of 1817, in France, the "Russian Mountains" came to Paris. These early versions of the roller coaster were set up in two large Parisian pleasure gardens and were soon very popular with the public, who flocked to ride on them. But the English would not be so quick to adopt the montagnes russes and it would be several decades before similar roller rides were constructed in Britain. The legitimate theatre saw a radical change in 1817. Beginning in August, for the first time, the stages of the patent theatres in London introduced gaslight on their stages. Some of these theatres had used gaslight to illuminate the auditorium and the boxes in their theatres, but had not yet implemented this new lighting technology on their stages. That all changed in the late summer of 1817. Not long after gaslight hit the stages of London, a leading light of the sporting world was forced to retire. Henry Angelo, Senior, was forced to retire in late September of 1817. The elder Angelo had been managing the fencing academy on Bond Street which had been founded by his father. But after a long summer vacation, Henry Angelo, Senior, paid a call on his friend and student, the famous actor, Edmund Kean, for a morning fencing lesson. Unfortunately, the elder Angelo so severely strained one of the tendons in his leg during his first lunge that he knew his teaching days were over. Fortunately, Henry Angelo, Junior had been working with his father for many years and he was able to assume the management of the fencing academy in Bond Street with barely a ripple.

There was a significant change in the currency of Britain in 1817. The previous year saw the Great Recoinage of 1816, when the British government finally began to reform the currency after more than a century of neglect. Initially, the effort was focused on coins of small denominations, most of which were minted in silver. But sometime in late 1816 or early 1817, those managing the recoinage effort decided to introduce a brand new version of the gold sovereign. This would be the very first gold sovereign which would be minted by steam power rather than by hand. Because of its high gold content, many of these gold sovereigns were purchased for investment purposes and very few of the new coins actually made it into circulation.

Though word did not reach England until late in the year, in mid-November of 1817, the French explorer and mineralogist, Frédéric Cailliaud, found the lost emerald mine of Cleopatra. Sadly for Ali Pasha, the Ottoman Empire’s governor in Egypt, who had hoped to re-open the mine, the emeralds found in the ancient works had little monetary value. However, Cailliaud’s discovery yielded significant archaeological evidence of untold value. Once the word got out about the discovery, vast numbers of tourists, including many from Britain, traveled to Egypt, in part to see the ancient emerald mine of Queen Cleopatra.

Though the year 1817 saw the loss of two prominent English women, including the heir to the throne and her son, there were many other positive events which occurred in that year. Any one of these events might help a Regency Author include historically accurate embellishments for a romance novel set during that period. Which ones most pique your interest and/or imagination?

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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4 Responses to 1817:   The Year in Review

  1. Sarah Waldock says:

    I’ve been trying to keep a good historical background as I follow through with my heroine, Jane Armitage, née Jane Fairfax, and borrowed from Mis Austen, as she and her Bow Street Officer husband solve mysteries. We are just entering 1819 and I will be making use of the Draisine and its popularity in having a sabotaged one used for the purpose of killing. Wish me luck; I am about to embark on something I have never attempted before, writing the solving of three mysteries simultaneously after the manner of Chinese detective stories [because I’m a fan of Robert Van Gulilk] and finding a way to twist some of their threads together. It will either drive me nuts and I’ll flee screaming and go back to normal or it will be great fun.

  2. Thank you so much for the brilliant post of 2017, Kathryn. I enjoyed reading them very much, and find them a great source of inspiration. Have a happy, healthy and creative year 2018!

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